Chapter 13: The Invasion of Kiska
15 August 1943
Plans for the Assault
Although the occupation of Kiska was achieved without enemy opposition, it nevertheless was conducted under combat conditions until the landing was well underway.
Considerably larger forces were allotted to the assault on Kiska than had been used at Attu, since the garrison of the former island was known to have been several times as large as Attu's.46 The landing force consisted of 34,426 troops, 5,300 of whom were Canadian. Ships involved were three battleships, one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, nineteen destroyers, five attack transports, one attack cargo vessel, ten transports, three cargo vessels, one fast transport, fourteen LSTs, nine LCI(L)s, nineteen LCT(5)s, two light minelayers, three fast minesweepers, two tugs, one harbor tug, and one surveying ship.47 Potential air strength was 24 heavy bombers, 44 medium bombers, 28 dive bombers, 60 fighters, and 12 patrol bombers. Command of the attack force was vested in Admiral Rockwell, while Maj. Gen. C.H. Corlett was to command the landing force. Supreme command was again in the hands of Thomas C. Kinkaid, who had been promoted to Vice Admiral.
As soon as success at Attu was assured, plans for the attack on Kiska were placed in work. In this case it was possible for shore party and fire control party personnel with experience at Attu to be sent to California for training exercises. The troops eventually employed consisted of the 17th Infantry, 53d Infantry, 87th Mountain Infantry, 184th Infantry, First Special Service Force, 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group, and headquarters troops. The 17th Infantry was to be returned to Adak from Attu, where the 159th would replace it. The 53d Infantry was a composite group organized in Alaska. The 87th Mountain Infantry reported at
Fort Ord on 19 June. The 13th Canadian Infantry Brigade assembled on Vancouver Island between 1 and 15 June.
With the exception of the 17th Infantry, most of these units had had no significant amphibious training. The First Special Service Force, however, consisted of about 1,800 men especially trained in commando tactics, rubber boat handling, and parachuting. While the majority of the men involved were to receive preliminary training outside the Alaskan area, experience at Attu had shown that it was essential for troops unfamiliar with the Aleutian terrain to have at least two weeks' training in the area itself.
The plans for the assault proper were approved on 19 July by Admiral Kinkaid. The 87th Mountain Infantry conducted training exercises and San Diego and Fort Ord under the supervision of Admiral Rockwell and General Corlett, while the Commanding General, Amphibious Corps, Pacific Fleet (Maj. Gen. Holland M. Smith, USMC) and his staff conducted the training in the Adak area. On 22 July Admiral Rockwell and general Corlett left San Francisco in the
Grant, which had been fitted as an advanced command post for the landing force commander. (Admiral Rockwell's flagship, the
Pennsylvania, which was being refitted as a headquarters ship, was not to be ready until 3 August).
The target date had been set as 15 August, but at a conference of all ranking officers at Adak on 30 July it was decided to delay D-day until the 24th because of the need for further training and regrouping of battalion combat teams. This decision was not acceptable to CINCPAC, so D-day was again designated as 15 August and H-hour as 0630.
It was believed that the main enemy positions had been laid out to meet attack
from the south and east. An interesting plan was evolved to capitalize on this
concentration of defensive power. Major fire support was to be delivered from
the south and east against known Japanese gun positions. Simultaneously one
transport group was to make a feint from the south. The actual landings,
however, were to be made on the north and west side of the island, facing our
major fire support.
The initial landings were to take place on the north side of the central portion of the island, preceded by night landings by the special service force, which was directed to seize high ground to the southward of the beaches. On D plus 1 day new beachhead were to be secured on the west side of the northern part of Kiska. This later operation was to be carried
out by transports which had previously conducted the demonstration on the southern side of the island.
Most of the heavier ships which had conducted the bombardments of 22 July and 2 August were to operate to the south and west of Kiska and Attu to cover the landing.
On 13 August both transport groups departed from Adak for Kiska. At 1700 they were followed by the Pennsylvania, Idaho, Tennessee, Santa Fe, and their screens.
Execution of the Plan
Early in the morning of the 15th, minesweepers cleared the necessary channels, after which transports took up positions in Transport Area No. 1 (northwest of the waist of the island). Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers executed prearranged fires on targets in the Gertrude Cove, Little Kiska, North Head, Main Camp, and submarine base areas. The five transports which were eventually to constitute the northern group then assembled south of the central portion of the island in order to conduct their demonstration. Five motor torpedo boats arrived in this area at 0750 and went in for reconnaissance. They were camouflaged with wood to give the impression that large landing parties were aboard.
Meanwhile the southern landing ships group had arrived and joined the transports on the north side of the island. The first assault wave, covered by special service troops which were already ashore, landed at 0621. No opposition was encountered. In spite of congestion and unsuitability of some of the beaches, 3,000 men had reached the island by 1200 and had established a beachhead 4,500 yards long. By 1600 a total of 6,500 troops had been landed.
The lack of contact with enemy forces was unexpected, but it was not wholly surprising. Intelligence had suggested that the Japanese might withdraw to prepared positions on the high ground back of the beaches as they had done at Attu. Consequently, the landings scheduled for the next morning were not canceled or altered. Aerial reconnaissance, which might have revealed the true state of affairs, was hampered by adverse weather.
At 2200 the minesweepers proceeded to the northern transport area and swept it, after which the transports involved in the demonstration on the southern side of the island came in and took up their positions. Special
Service Force units landed at 0110 on the 16th. All assault waves, less Canadians, had been landed by 0800 without opposition. An hour later 3,100 troops were ashore. By noon Ranger Hill had bee occupied and indications of recent Japanese evacuation had been found. A few antipersonnel mines were located on the northern beaches.
In the south, meanwhile, patrols began to find even more widespread evidence of Japanese evacuation within the past ten days or two weeks.
On the 16th the same prearranged fires were delivered by supporting ships, with ammunition allowances reduced by 50 per cent.
By 1600 on D plus 1 day, patrols reached the Gertrude Cove area, supposedly one of the enemy's most strongly held areas. It, too, was unoccupied. The Canadian troops had now landed on the northern beaches, making a total of about 7,000 men in that sector. Before the close of the day, many batteries of artillery were put ashore at all beaches. Aerial reconnaissance, to ascertain the position of the enemy, continued to be ineffective because of bad weather.
The next day further evidence of hasty abandonment was found. little Kiska had apparently been evacuated about ten days earlier. Since there was no indication of the presence of the enemy, Commander Attack Force (Admiral Rockwell) relieved congestion at the beaches by ordering some transports to re-embark heavy equipment and proceed to more favorable anchorages near Kiska Harbor and Gertrude Cove. He had already released the Tennessee, Idaho, and screen to return to Adak.
At 0244, 18 August, it was learned that the Abner Read had been severely damaged by an underwater explosion. While reversing course at five knots, the ship had her fantail blown off, probably by a mine. The vessel was able to proceed to Adak in tow of the Ute, but 61 personnel were listed as missing and 26 were injured.
By 0800 on the 18th enemy contacts ashore were still negative, although 26 casualties had been caused by mistaken identity in the heavy fog. Throughout the next few days, unloading, patrolling afloat and ashore, and other activities incident to the landing continued without hostile interference, and numerous ships were detached to return to base. At 1150, 22 August, Commander North Pacific Force (Admiral Kinkaid) announced that the amphibious phase of the operation would be considered complete at 1400. At that time Commander Attack Force in the Pennsylvania departed for Adak with screen.
Evacuation of Kiska by the Japanese
It is believed that the main Japanese evacuation took place on or about 28 July.
At that time our covering task groups were operating to the southward of
Attu-Kiska and to the westward and northwestward of Attu. Search planes were
scanning all suspect areas as diligently as weather allowed. Nevertheless, it
seems that the actual evacuation ships were not sighted, unless they were picked
up on 29 July. Contacts were, however, made with submarines which may have played a minor part. Surface contacts in the period were limited to the following:
10 July: Four small AKs attacked by Army and Navy air west of Attu. Two sunk and the others turned back.
23 July: Seven "ships" contacted by Catalina radar southwest of Attu.
25 July: Another AK sighted.
25-26 July: Radar contacts bombarded by our task groups. These contacts were probably phantoms.
27 July: One 200-foot AK and 16 barges seen in Kiska Harbor.
29 July: Seven "ships" contacted by Catalina radar northwest of Attu.
2 August: Only one barge and one small boat seen on the beach near the main camp. In the interim, photographic coverage had been prevented by weather.
Radio transmissions from Kiska ceased on the 27th. Prior to that date our attacking airmen had noted extensive demolitions and alterations in the defenses of the island. Antiaircraft fire had diminished, and after 28 July it virtually ceased, only a small detachment of the enemy remaining on the island to fire light weapons and thus delude our fliers and the observers on our bombarding vessels. This rear guard was probably evacuated by submarine.
The fact that antiaircraft fire continued, although sporadically and in reduced volume, proved that the Japanese still remained on the island. The destruction and alteration of installations revealed by air photos was readily interpreted as evidence of defensive preparations. The cumulative impression was bolstered at the eleventh hour by the report of Liberators which raided Paramushiru on 12 August that a considerable Japanese naval force was concentrated in the Kuriles. Our leaders were led to suspect that the enemy was not only ready and waiting but was going to make a serious naval effort to oppose our landing. Any doubts of enemy resistance were not compelling enough to result in advance reconnaissance of Kiska except from the air.
Later reports indicated that the Japanese began their attempts to evacuate the island on about 10 July. The light surface force which was charged with this duty turned back at least six times because the weather was not thick enough. On the 26th (Tokyo time) the rescue force was again cruising about, awaiting favorable weather, when the minelayer Kunijiri apparently collided with the light cruiser Abukuma, causing slight damage. The resultant confusion brought about a triple collision in the rear of the column which forced one unit to return to Paramushiru. Evidently the weather played no favorites in Aleutian naval operations.
On the 28th (Tokyo time) it was decided to make a dash for Kiska, since the weather had closed down. On the way in, one destroyer mistook Little Kiska for an American patrol vessel and launched several torpedoes. Later another destroyer bombarded the same target. loading of evacuees was accomplished in two hours. Paramushiru was safely reached on the 31st.
With the departure of the last Japanese from Kiska, the Aleutians Campaign may be said to have ended. But there was no cessation of the arduous, unspectacular effort which had brought success after nearly 15 months. The bitter battle against he weather went on as usual. Bases still had to be completed, and air facilities had to be improved and expanded for operations against the Kuriles.
The anticlimactic character of the invasion of Kiska, while disappointing because our forces, well-prepared at last, were prevented from coming to grips with the enemy, was compensated by lives saved and lessons learned under conditions which were nearly those of combat. The withdrawal of the Japanese without a fight was unfortunate in one sense, however. It presented us with a false picture of what might be expected from the enemy when the odds were hopelessly against him. Instead of fighting to the death, as at Attu, he had faded into the fog without a struggle. But Attu, and not Kiska, was to be the pattern of the future.
Actually there were 7,800 Japanese on Kiska, about evenly divided between Army and Navy personnel.
Complete task force organization is given in the
appendix. Of the transports and cargo vessels, only two, the Grant and St. Mihiel, were Navy manned. The rest had merchant crews, although in each instance the master was advised by a naval liaison officer. One ship was manned by the Dutch.
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